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Is It Really Possible? A Budget Resolution? Two Years in a Row?

After months of difficult behind-the-scenes discussions, it looks as if the House and Senate have come up with a way to agree on a budget resolution conference report for fiscal 2009. Although they have already missed the April 15 statutory deadline, the conference report will likely be adopted a week or so earlier than last year.

[IMGCAP(1)]The key phrase in the above paragraph is “than it was last year.” If the conference report is indeed adopted by both chambers, it will be a cause for at least some mild celebration because it will be the first time in a while that Congress will have done it two years in a row. Because there’s no legal penalty for failing to comply with the legal requirement that a budget resolution be adopted each year and a perceived heavy political price to pay if it is, for much of the past decade even one year in a row has been too much for some on Capitol Hill to deal with.

Because few outside a small circle of people inside the Beltway pay much attention to budget resolutions, in past years the Republican leadership’s decision often was not to even try, or at least not to try that hard, to get a conference resolution agreement. In some years, it seemed as if the strategy from the start was for the House and Senate to pass their own versions of a budget resolution but to do little or nothing afterward.

The fact that the leadership this year seems to have made a commitment to getting a budget resolution conference agreement is impressive, and in some ways a throwback to the earliest days of the Congressional budget process. In the late 1970s, Rules Chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), who considered himself to be the father of the Congressional budget process (Bolling wasn’t alone; a number of people tried to claim paternity), frequently pushed Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) to get personally involved so that the budget process would move forward. The reconciliation procedures had not yet been used and in fact were largely unknown, so Bolling’s efforts were strictly to show that the majority was being responsible and to make it clear that the budget process was important and needed to be followed.

With the economy in a tailspin, most economic and budget decisions being made outside the Congressional budget process, and deficit reduction not on the agenda because of the concerns about a recession, it would have been easy for Congress this year to again ignore the budget resolution and focus on other more politically appealing and much more media-worthy initiatives. In general but especially in this economic environment, the fact that the opposite happened should be noted and a cause for a few fiscal high-fives.

The budget resolution compromise was based on a decision by the Blue Dog Democrats in the House to give up their insistence that the reconciliation procedures be used to offset the large revenue loss from the one-year fix to the alternative minimum tax. Those procedures would have precluded a filibuster in the Senate and meant that only a simple majority would have been needed to pass the offset.

The Blue Dogs were right to push for the offset, but just as correct to read the tea leaves and drop their insistence about reconciliation. The votes simply didn’t exist in the Senate to get the reconciliation instructions the Blue Dogs wanted.

Even if the Blue Dogs had been successful at getting the reconciliation instructions included and avoiding the filibuster, there’s no way they would have been able to get the two-thirds majority that then would have been needed in both chambers to override the virtually certain veto of the bill. They obviously decided, or someone convinced them, that a budget resolution conference report with reconciliation instructions wouldn’t have led to the offset they were seeking, so there was little value in continuing to push for the procedure to be used.

If a budget resolution conference report is indeed agreed to two years in a row, it also will be the second time in two years that this will be the high point for the Congressional budget process.

No reconciliation instructions means there will be no reconciliation bill and, therefore, no formal deficit reduction efforts the rest of this year. While committees will still be free to recommend offsets, the possibility of filibusters in the Senate and vetoes from the White House makes it much less likely any will be proposed.

Having the budget resolution in place does mean that the debates on the fiscal 2009 appropriations bills will be able to move ahead without the House and Senate going through procedural gyrations to make it happen. That’s a good thing, especially in the Senate, where the prohibition about debating appropriations in the absence of a budget resolution conference report is more difficult to deal with than in the House.

But few of the spending bills for the coming year are expected to be debated and voted on by the Senate before the fiscal year begins, so this benefit ultimately may not mean that much anyway. And Congress was always going to find some way of dealing with the one appropriation — Defense — that is considered must-pass before the election.

But none of this detracts from the fact that Congress will have adopted a budget resolution two years in a row. That almost makes you think that some day getting all appropriations signed by the first day of the fiscal year may not be a wild dream after all.

Stan Collender is managing director at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is Capital Gains and Games.

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